24 HOURS CENTENARY – THE LE MANS EXCEPTION ⎮The creative and artistic boom that marked the first half of the 1970s was expressed on the track through Art Cars, thanks to one gentleman driver's passion for contemporary art. How will their legacy carry on for the Centenary?
After the authorisation and inclusion of non-sporting sponsorship (companies not directly involved in the automotive industry) at the end of the 1960s, the following decade saw the appearance of original and mostly memorable liveries at the race. Participation in the endeavor ramped up in the mid-1970s with the arrival of Art Cars.
BMW at Le Mans, contemporary art in motion
Certainly the so-called “psychedelic” Porsche 917 second-place finisher in 1970 was a pioneer in the effort. But Art Cars were officially born in 1975 when Hervé Poulain, French gentleman driver and auctioneer, with 10 starts to his credit, competed in the 44th 24 Hours at the wheel of a BMW decorated by American painter-sculptor Alexander Calder. He was forced to retire, but returned in 1977 with a new livery for his BMW by another American artist, Frank Stella. The car Poulain shared with Marcel Mignot made it to the chequered flag in ninth place. Two years later, the two Frenchmen were joined by German driver Manfred Winkelhock in a BMW M1, finishing sixth, the best overall result for an Art Car up to that point.
Though the car driven by Jeff Koons in 2010 was the last BMW Art Car seen at Le Mans to date, Hervé Poulain carried the concept over to other models, like a McLaren F1 GTR and a Porsche 911, respectively signed by the sculptor César and the illustrator Georges Wolinski, for his last two participations in 1995 and 1997 (13th and 20th places). Hervé Poulain: "It's impossible to choose a favourite Art Car, like asking a father if he prefers one child over another. All the Art Cars I drove at the 24 Hours of Le Mans are special to me in their own way."
Arts Cars from the 1990s to the Centenary
Thanks to the pioneering efforts (in every artistic sense of the term) led by Poulain, Art Cars have found their place at the legendary race. On the eve of the Centenary, it's easy to think of the Morgan LMP2 Art Car entered for the 90th anniversary in 2013 (now part of the 24 Hours Museum collection). The design by Fernando Costa was based on road signs and meticulously reproduced on the Morgan fielded by OAK Racing and driven by Jacques Nicolet/Jean-Marc Merlin/Philippe Mondolot. Team owner turned constructor with Morgan then Ligier, Jacques Nicolet: "What is exciting to me is not an Art Car especially, but the principle of the Art Car. Meaning an artist, a theme, a story or a concept, more particularly in the case of the Morgan, on a prototype, whereas Art Cars had mainly been GTs."
Jean-Philippe BOYER / ACO
In 2017, Art Cars saw both this prototype version added to the 24 Hours Museum and a new variation on the track thanks to the Corvette entered by French team Larbre Compétition. Its designer, Ramzi Adek, sought to offer a different perspective on Art Cars, long the domain of well-renowned contemporary artists: Ramzi Adek: "I wanted to create a pop Art Car because the public of the 24 Hours of Le Mans may not necessarily frequent art galleries. I thought about Matisse as well as the culture of comics."
While the shapes and lines of easily recognisable GTs like the BMW M1, McLaren F1 GTR, Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette were indeed a primary source of inspiration for artists who have contributed to the lineage of Art Cars, it still remains to be seen how that will translate to the Hypercars entered by Ferrari, Porsche, Peugeot, Glickenhaus and Toyota for the Centenary in 2023. And what do Lamborghini and BMW have in store for us thereafter?
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: the 1995 McLaren F1 GTR Art Car based on a design by sculptor César that finished 13th for Hervé Poulain/Marc Sourd/Jean-Luc Maury-Laribière; three generations of BMW Art Cars from 1977 (#50), 1979 (#76) and 2010 (#79); in 2013, the Morgan-Nissan Art Car of the 90th anniversary running came in two versions, a static one based on traffic signs, reproduced identically for the prototype which competed in LMP2; the 2017 Corvette Art Car pole-sitter in LMGTE Am.